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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Exile from Dongletown

It was around 2016 on the edge of the desert when the Touch Bar began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I’ll need several adapters for that…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge butterflies, all clicking and sticking around the laptop, which was going about 2.8 gigahertz with the top down to Dongletown.

If Mac laptops come in eras, one just ended.

It started in 2016 with the release of MacBook Pro models featuring butterfly keyboards, the Touch Bar, and a minimal selection of USB-C ports. It ended on Monday with the announcement of new MacBook Pro models that roll back most of the major changes introduced in 2016, putting the MacBook Pro in a new state of grace that recalls the middle of the last decade.

If you can, cast your mind back to the 2015 MacBook Pro. It had all of these features, due to be deprecated in 2016:

  • MagSafe charging port
  • HDMI port
  • SD card slot
  • 2 Thunderbolt and 2 USB-A ports
  • Physical function keys

Now consider the 2021 MacBook Pros, which have:

  • MagSafe charging port
  • HDMI port
  • SD card slot
  • Three Thunderbolt 4/USB 4 ports
  • Physical function keys

Although Apple removed the dreadful “butterfly” keyboard in 2019-2020, the rest of the issues with this era of MacBook Pro remained. They’re largely gone now.

Return of the MagSafe.

MagSafe: Adding USB-C as a charging port was good in a lot of ways. It was non-proprietary, unlike the first two generations of MagSafe, which basically couldn’t be used with anything but Apple’s power brick. With USB-C, you could attach a laptop to a dock, and it would charge, too. With MagSafe, you always needed two cords—one for charging, one for data.

Adding USB-C also added flexibility. If you had a higher-end MacBook Pro with ports on both sides, you could charge from either one.

Unfortunately, Apple had spent years selling MacBook users on the enhanced safety of a magnetically-attached breakaway cable, and it was completely right. So much so that many of us ended up buying third-party alternatives. My M1 MacBook Air has a magnetic-charging thing permanently stuck in one of its two USB-C ports, so I can charge it with a magnetic cable that attaches to a USB-C power brick. Not ideal, but it was worth it to get MagSafe back during the dark ages.

Finally, using USB-C as a charging port means that you’re losing one of your ports for peripherals whenever you want to charge. On MacBook Pros with only a port or two, that was a brutal loss. The new MacBook Pros can charge and still have three open ports—but they used to have four ports, so essentially the MagSafe port has swallowed one. Probably fine on a system with three other ports. But if MagSafe ate one of the ports on a future two-port model, I would be disappointed.

(Here’s a quirk of the new MacBook Pros. On the 14-inch models, the larger 96W USB-C power adapter is required for fast charging. You can fast charge either via MagSafe or via a standard USB-C cable attached to that adapter. However, on the 16-inch models—all of which come with a 140W adapter—you can only do ultra-fast charging via MagSafe. While there’s a new specification that allows for much higher power delivery levels over USB ports, the Thunderbolt 4/USB 4 ports on the MacBook Pro don’t support it. You can still charge via those ports, of course—just not at the ultra-fastest speed.)

HDMI: If there’s a video cable more universal than HDMI these days, I haven’t seen it. While your favorite conference room may be equipped with a USB-C cable or adapter, it’s very hard to count on finding one when you wander into a room with a projector or big screen, sight unseen. An HDMI port on a MacBook Pro means never having to be sorry when you need to plug in.

HDMI haven’t seen you for a while. Good to SD you again.

SD slot: Apple’s argument for getting rid of the SD slot was that the future would be wireless, and we wouldn’t need to use cards to transfer data anymore. It wasn’t true back in 2016, and it’s still not true. Sure, some devices equipped with SD cards now offer wireless data transfer, but let me tell you—it’s not as fast or reliable as just plugging in a card and transferring the data! And a lot of our non-Apple devices still rely on slow USB ports to transfer data if you have to copy the data directly. The SD slot is just convenient whether you’re a pro transferring photos, audio, or video.

And as my podcast partner Myke Hurley pointed out to me just after the event on Monday, that slot is also a great place for extra “internal storage” on your MacBook Pro. Pop in an SD card, and while it might not be the fastest or most robust long-term storage, it’ll give your MacBook extra storage space without a USB drive or cable sticking out and flopping around.

Thunderbolt 4/USB 4: Apple’s not going back to USB-A. And yet, this is much less painful than it was five years ago. So many devices are moving or have moved to USB-C, and even for devices using older connections, you can usually buy a new cable with USB-C on one end. If I graphed my use of USB-A-to-USB-C adapters over the years, it would be a steady downward slope reaching almost zero today. I’m okay with Apple leaving this one where it is. Still, Dongletown abides. Computer users will always need hubs and adapters to keep everything plugged in properly. That may never, ever change.

Touch Bar no more.

Function keys: When the Touch Bar arrived, I thought it had a lot of potential. Unfortunately, there were two big problems: a lack of tactile feedback and software support. In a world where video streamers and others swear by accessories like El Gato’s Stream Deck, which puts a screen behind keys so that you can customize them, it feels like the Touch Bar might have worked better if it wasn’t completely featureless in terms of feel. The surface perpendicular to the screen on a laptop is a touch surface—it’s largely operated by feel. The Touch Bar demanded that you look at it, and that was asking a lot. I wonder if a Stream Deck-style Touch Bar might have been a better approach.

As for the lack of software support, that comes from the top: After the launch of the Touch Bar, Apple did almost zero to help the hardware fulfill its potential. Third-party apps like BetterTouchTool showed that the Touch Bar could be made much more usable with some clever software upgrades, but macOS never added a single major Touch Bar improvement over its entire life. I don’t know if Apple’s software team just never bought what the hardware team that designed the Touch Bar was selling, or if the whole company knew the feature was dead after a few months, or if the emperor always had no clothes and it took years for everyone to admit it. Regardless of its potential, the Touch Bar never had a chance because even its creator failed to show it any love.

What’s new in 2021

Of course, the 2015 15″ MacBook Pro also featured a 15.4-inch 2880-by-1800 pixel display with 300 nits of brightness, an Intel Core i7 processor configurable up to 2.8GHz quad-core, graphics configurable up to an AMD Radeon R9, 16GB of memory, measured 14.1 x 9.7 x 0.71 inches, weighed 4.49 pounds, and offered up to nine hours of wireless web browsing battery life.

Today’s 16″ model, in contrast, features a 16.2-inch 3456-by-2234 display with 1000 nits of consistent brightness (with 1600 nits at peak), an M1 Pro or M1 Max processor with 10 processor cores, Apple GPUs with between 16 and 32 cores, up to 64GB of memory, measures 14.0 x 9.8 x 0.66 inches, weighs 4.7 pounds, and offers up to 14 hours of wireless web browsing battery life.

Or, to put it another way: Today’s laptops are still six years newer. They’ve got a state-of-the-art mini-LED display (with a new menu bar area bisected by a camera notch—more on that some other time!), Apple’s cutting edge processors, much better battery life, and are roughly the same size—albeit a tiny bit heavier.

If you prefer the smaller 14-inch model, the story is more or less the same. In fact, in terms of 2021, it’s exactly the same. I can’t remember the last time this was true, but both models of MacBook Pro can be configured to the same heights if you want to—every single built-to-order option from the more expensive, larger model is also available in the smaller one. Want a 14-inch model with an M1 Max processor with a 32-core GPU, 64GB of memory, and 8TB of storage? That’ll be $5899, please. (The 16-inch model is $6099 with the same specs.)

You pay for what you get

Oh yes: the pricing. Apple has hiked the base price of the smaller model to $1999, and that’s just the start of it. For $1999, you get a model with eight CPU cores rather than ten, 14 GPU cores rather than 16, and a 67W power adapter in the box. $200 more gets you all 10 CPU cores, but only 14 GPU cores. To get an M1 Pro that fulfills its destiny, that’ll be $300 more, or $2299. These are not cheap computers, and the more of them you want, the more you’ll pay.

I am also left wondering about the role of the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Starting at $1299, it’s doing a lot more work in holding down the bottom of the line than it used to. But it’s definitely a MacBook Pro of a different era, despite its M1 processor. I have to imagine Apple will update it at some point, perhaps just to get rid of the Touch Bar and add MagSafe. It’s hard to imagine it would disappear altogether, given that then the MacBook Pro line would start at $1999, but it’s an outlier that’s still a bit too much like the MacBook Air and too little like the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros.

Speaking of the MacBook Air and all of the M1 Macs Apple has rolled out in the past year: It’s exciting to see the Apple-silicon-on-Mac story have a second chapter. The M1 processor was rightfully greeted with a lot of praise, but it is still a low-end chip running in Apple’s lowest-impact Macs. It takes two points to make a line. Now that the M1 Pro and M1 Max have arrived, Apple’s post-Intel product line is starting to take shape.

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